In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.
The Puritans who settled New England rejected Christmas celebration on scriptural grounds. To compensate, they held their harvest festival as late as possible, which is why Americans still celebrate Thanksgiving long after the crops are in.
Something similar has happened with Nuit Blanche, the all-night arts and entertainment spectacle that has lodged itself in many cities. A true "white night" is a night with little or no darkness, such as we have across Northern Canada every summer. The former Russian capital of St. Petersburg holds its annual White Nights festival in late spring and early summer, which makes sense. St. Petersburg is very close to the 60th parallel – the same marker that divides Canada's southern provinces from the northern territories – and its shortest nights are a dusky five hours long.
But in Canada, Nuit Blanche is not a summertime thing. In Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Halifax and several other places, the all-night shindig happens in late September or early October. By the amount of light in the sky, that's a whole season too late, though Montreal pushes it even later. Nuit Blanche here is a winter event, happening Saturday night, when the sun will set at around 5:30.
Montreal's Nuit Blanche is part of a well-rooted Quebec culture of braving out the cold, which reaches its symbolic zenith during Carnaval in Quebec City, where temperatures for last year's fete averaged nearly –18 C. Nuit Blanche in Montreal has also been seconded into a more recent civic fixation on bringing more actual light into the darkest months. To that end, the city has Luminothérapie, an annual display of curated light around the Quartier des Spectacles, and Montréal en Lumière, a 17-day festival of everything bright and shiny, within which Nuit Blanche counts as a single highly publicized episode.
As in other places, Nuit Blanche here offers a mixture of art and non-art stuff to do, see or eat. There are more than 200 events or displays in 135 locations, though a fair number of those are things that were happening anyway. The unprecedented news that bars can stay open till 6 a.m. this year is the perfect illustration of the two purposes warring in the bosom of a single event. Get cultured or get wasted.
A lot of the art at this year's Nuit Blanche has gone underground, literally. Art Souterrain, now in its eighth edition, will take up positions in the warren of underground malls and passageways that Montrealers use when braving out the cold doesn't appeal. That happens about 100,000 times a day, according to the latest estimates of pedestrian traffic through the subterranean network. Everything down there has to be lit at all hours of use – another reason why Nuit Blanche in this town might better be called Nuit Illuminée. Is it any wonder that Hydro-Québec is the major sponsor?
Art Souterrain's theme this year is: L'art doit-il séduire? Use the word "seduction" in the art world and some people will think of Jean Baudrillard, or will at least start shuffling their feet in kinetic memory of the sly game-playing routines that have trickled down to them from that postmodern sage.
But if you take the term a little more simply, Art Souterrain's question is the whole issue about Nuit Blanche, from the artists' point of view. Many regard the event as a loss leader disguised as an attempt at mass seduction. You run your exhibition till an ungodly hour, and during that time a stream of people pass through who may have little idea what they're looking at or why, except that their friends are there too and the bars stay open till 6. Even if you never see any of those faces again, you can tell the art councils that you were part of the big night and that outreach was done.
Seduction is definitely the program for the non-art stuff, as well as most of Montréal en Lumière and much that happens around the Quartier des Spectacles. These phenomena have all been promoted as touristic draws, and tourism is the most institutionalized form of seduction outside pornography.
The crazy two-mindedness of this year's Nuit Blanche is evident all through the brochure of events. It includes openings till midnight or 2 a.m. of the city's major museums, as well as three-ski racing down a steep slope temporarily installed on Rue St-Denis. At Centre PHI, you can watch a live installation by Miss Me, a balaclava-wearing street artist. At Centre des Arts, you can take in a quite different form of body politics, via La nuit des cordes, a live demonstration of the Japanese erotic rope bondage known as shibari.
The degree to which Nuit Blanche does not serve the arts in Montreal is perhaps best revealed in the number of arts festivals that happen without benefit of ski runs on Rue St-Denis. The revived Biennale de Montréal could be a particular case in point. A big buzzy arts festival, attuned to a broad public but not pandering to it, looks like a better way than Nuit Blanche to get more Montrealers to notice the art being made in their town.